Reading Authors and Texts in Context

I was alerted to this new volume by Daniel Swift and wanted to let you know about it for two reasons: 1) It’s an interesting topic in which two groups of readers have an interesting, those interested in the history of worship and those interested in Shakespeare. This gets me to the second reason: 2) This brief interview with the author in the Boston Globe is quite promising. He observes a great problem in the study of the history of ideas (whether theological ideas or other doesn’t really matter): anachronism. My experience in a large, publicly-funded university in the late 70s and early 80s was that there was widespread ignorance about the history of Christianity (and religion more generally) in the university. This is not a good thing because it creates blind spots in the interpretation of the past. I recall my profs telling me things that I now know to have been a great load of nonsense. One prof, whom I otherwise admired, said repeatedly that we couldn’t be sure what the NT really said because it was written in Greek, as if it is impossible to read the NT in Greek and understand it! I always wondered if the same held for French? What a silly thing to say! But he said it repeatedly—probably because someone said it to him. One good side effect was that it helped to stimulate me to learn Greek and I can confidently report that my prof was wrong. Greek isn’t impenetrable. We can read it, understand it, and translate it. I marvel now that he didn’t walk over to Andrews Hall and ask the Classics Department what they thought of his theory. I can guess and their response would have been decisive and unprintable on a family blog.

The other effect of this ignorance of even hostility to learning (in some respects) is the way it caused and facilitated a secularizing of the past. The unstated reasoning seemed to be thus:

  • We are rational, Enlightened people (this was before the English translations of Derrida & co swept across the universities)
  • All rational, Enlightened people know that religion is only for the ignorant and benighted
  • Subject X in the past was a rational, Enlightened person
  • Ergo, subject X must have been essentially as secularist as we are now

Under this logic any religious expressions by those deemed “reasonable” must be dismissed as mere formalities, as mere rhetorical moves to keep ostensibly repressive religious authorities at bay.

This approach to the past is known as anachronism or reading the present back into the past. In contrast, the only proper way to interpret the is to come at it from below, as it were, rather than from above. In this case, the only way to read Shakespeare (or Perkins) is to understand what things (economics, social structures, theology etc) would have influenced him. So far as we know now (setting eschatology aside for the moment) the future could not have influenced Shakespeare but his own setting would necessarily have influenced him.

Hence my interest in this new volume. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

IDEAS: Can we understand Shakespeare’s world without understanding The Book of Common Prayer?


SWIFT: No, because it’s almost impossible to overemphasize the way in which 16th-century England was saturated in religion. And this was the book that explained to people the proper way of behaving in the eyes of God. It was a foundational document for human behavior. It was also a political document, since it’s anachronistic to think of any separation between church and state in Elizabethan England.

Swift criticizes a recent essay on the “timelessness” of the Book of Common Prayer by saying that such an approach misses the point, at least for understanding the BCP in its context and for understanding Shakespeare’s appropriation of it:

IDEAS: You say that the book was Shakespeare’s “great forgotten source.” Why do you think literary scholars forgot it in the first place?


SWIFT: When people look at Shakespeare, they see an image of Shakespeare as themselves—as they would like to be. It’s like a mirror, but a funhouse mirror. So when Stephen Greenblatt looks at Shakespeare, he sees a skeptical, intellectual, liberal-minded philosopher. I would suggest to you that what Greenblatt is seeing in those moments is Stephen Greenblatt. Similarly, most literary critics have wanted to find a Shakespeare who is subversive and on the margins of society. The Book of Common Prayer was an entirely conventional document, and it’s been in scholars’ interest to separate Shakespeare from what many people have thought is a boring document.

You should read this brief interview for yourself. I’ve asked our library to order a copy of the book (I can’t buy them all, I just can’t) and I look forward to seeing it. It’s exciting to see someone openly critiquing rampant anachronism and subjectivism in the interpretation of the past.

Of course we’re never going to get it completely right. This is why history is “telling the truth about the past as best we can.” There is a truth to tell (or else history is just another vehicle for politics and the will to power) but we are always revising it. The question isn’t whether revisionism but of what sort?

After just a little bit of reflection we should say, “Of course Shakespeare quoted and made allusions to the BCP! How could he not have done?” It’s good of Swift to point out what we should have seen all along and remind us of how we ought to look at the past.

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  1. Thanks for pointing this book out! Just reading the first few pages of the prologue (through was enough to whet my appetite. I like Swift’s writing style. I think I’m going to purchase the Kindle edition of the book.

    In my Medieval and Early Modern history courses that I took at the University of Maryland in College Park, along with several Shakespeare literature courses, I don’t think I remember hearing anyone connecting the Book of Common Prayer to Shakespeare.

    I remember reading Greenblat’s depictions of Shakespeare. I think Swift is absolutely correct in saying that Greenblat mostly saw himself when he interpreted Shakespeare’s life, writing, and thought.

    I can’t wait to read this book! Thanks again for blogging about this!

  2. Sorry I’m coming late to this post, but I had a question:

    Is it reaching too far to see a connection between Shakespeare’s use/parody of the BCP and the WLC’s condemnation of theater?

    Swift mentions in the interview that Lady Macbeth’s washing off the blood is a satirical nod to or parody of the BCP’s baptism rite. My exposure to Shakespeare came from the a-religious public school institution, and no one was giving a thought to the religious/theological angle of the Bard. If Swift is right, it is somewhat alarming to think of Shakespeare as taking beneath-the-surface swipes at the religious milieu of his day. It almost has a certain Madonna “Like A Virgin” quality?!?

    Anyway, is this part of the criticism WLC Q. #139 levels when it condemns “lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays;” ?? I’m sure C. Van Dixhoorn would be the guy to ask, but I appreciate any insights you have, Scott. Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Brian,

      In light of what little I know about 16th and 17th century drama, I don’t think the divines were ruling out all books, stage plays etc but they were inveighing against lascivious books and plays, which were not hard to find during war time England (the English Civil War, that is).

      I think the Bard was fairly subtle in his digs against the BCP. Sometimes he simply made allusions. What’s interesting is that his use of the BCP seems to have largely been overlooked til now.

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